Like most scientists, Dr. Blake Ball has always been curious. He’s always enjoyed solving problems. And, he has always wanted to use his research to make a direct real-world impact.
“Trying to figure out how ‘things’ work seemed to be a cool job,” says Dr. Ball, who recently received the CAHR-CANFAR Excellence in Research Award in the Basic Sciences Research Stream.
Dr. Ball – who is currently Chief of the National Laboratory for HIV Immunology, National HIV and Retrovirology Laboratories at the Public Health Agency of Canada, and associate professor of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba – developed an interest in HIV research when he was doing his post-graduate degree in basic biomedical science.
Dr. Frank Plummer, a Winnipeg HIV/AIDS scientist, had a lab across the hall from where he worked.
“His combination of basic and clinical research, in conjunction with programmatic delivery of HIV prevention services, was in my mind more impactful,” explains Dr. Ball, who has been an HIV researcher for more than 22 years. “This ultimately led me to do my PhD with him, and I have spent my life since then working on HIV at both the basic science, and wider public health level.”
Dr. Ball is primarily a mucosal immunologist, and tries to understand why some individuals seem to be able to resist HIV infection – with the goal of helping develop vaccines or microbicides. He works both nationally and globally, where his research directly benefits people living with HIV.
He also helps trains the next generation of young African scientists in Nairobi, as part of a long-time collaboration between the University of Manitoba and the University of Nairobi.
Since there is often a lack of resources for students who need to conduct their thesis work, Dr. Ball and his colleagues in Kenya established a ‘sandwich’ training program.
“Kenyan students can spend part of their program working with interested Canadian researchers, and come to their labs for a short period of time to conduct their benchwork,” Dr. Ball says. “This has led to many students completing their Master’s degree in Science, then coming to Canada (or elsewhere) to continue their graduate training.”
At the Public Health Agency of Canada, Dr. Ball ensures that the quality of diagnostic testing for immunologic markers of HIV disease progression – primarily CD4 – is of the highest calibre, and consistent across the country.
“The programmatic research and work we do in the context of supporting HIV diagnostics will continue to ensure that physicians and other health care providers have the best tests available to care for those affected by HIV,” Dr. Ball says.
He also runs an international program that support HIV care and treatment sites around the world, as well as an international program that provides support for CD4 testing and early infant diagnostic testing in hundreds of labs around the world.
Dr. Ball says that his most rewarding moments as an HIV scientist has come out of his work in Nairobi. When the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program was initially announced in 2003, he and his colleagues were able to submit an early application to support HIV care for the clients in their research studies – thanks to funding from the PEPFAR program.
Their application was successful, and today, his colleagues in Nairobi lead a program that provides HIV prevention, care, and support to more than 40,000 Kenyans who are at risk – such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, and people who inject drugs.
Looking to the future, Dr. Ball would like to take the lessons he has learned from working with at-risk communities in Africa and apply it to Canadians living with HIV.
“Sadly, the effects of stigma, discrimination, and health inequities affecting the at-risk populations in Canada and Africa, are very similar,” Dr. Ball says.
Over the years, Dr. Ball has been inspired by many mentors, and has learned something from everyone he has worked with – including his friends and colleagues Keith Fowke, and Paul Sandstorm.
Dr. Ball adds that he was incredibly honoured to receive a CAHR-CANFAR Excellence in Research Award, and that it was humbling to be included in the ranks of others who have won in the past.
“I really view this as less of a recognition of my own work, but mainly recognizing the outstanding contributions of all the staff, students and trainee’s whom I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with through my career,” Dr. Ball says. “I would like to thank all those I have worked with through the years. This is your award as much as it is mine.”